Reunited with Jimmie Johnson in sports cars, Chad Knaus ‘tremendously enjoys’ new racing
But as the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship became a significant part of his professional existence this year, Knaus has downsized his commitment to cool cars on the personal side. The owner of a supercharged Z06 Corvette (and also a vintage car enthuisast) recently sold a Porsche C4S and had his eye on an electric four-door Porsche that Jeff Gordon has been driving – until reality prevailed.
“Man, it’s just so sad,” Knaus, the father of two kids aged 2 years and 11 months, told NBC Sports with a laugh. “Gordon drove up the other day, and I’m like, ‘I’m going to get it!’ And then I was like, “Man, baby seats just won’t fit in that thing very well.’ It just takes the cool factor right out of it.”
Though having entered a new stage of life, the Hendrick Motorsports vice president of competition still is getting his fix for fast cars featuring gorgeously sleek stylings.
But now it’s on the racetrack -- with the No. 48 Ally Cadillac jointly fielded by Action Express and Hendrick Motorsports at IMSA endurance races this season. The car had a strong debut at Daytona International Speedway (finishing second in the Rolex 24 season opener) and was on pace for a podium finish in the Twelve Hours of Sebring (before being negated by a penalty).
The DPi entry will make its third start Sunday at Watkins Glen International in the Sahlen’s Six Hours of The Glen with Jimmie Johnson, Simon Pagenaud and Kamui Kobayashi sharing the wheel. A contingent of Hendrick team members led by Knaus will help pit and prepare the car for Sunday’s race (9:30 a.m., NBC Sports App, NBCSports.com, Track Pass on NBC Sports Gold; replay: 7 p.m., NBCSN).
“I’ve enjoyed it tremendously to experience a new type of racing,” said Knaus, who has worked in NASCAR’s premier series for three decades. “It’s something I’ve always wanted to do. It’s really a neat genre of racing. It’s definitely a cult-type following, just like NASCAR is. We have our communal groups, and it’s the same thing over there. It’s just a different vibe.
“Obviously, I have a soft spot in my heart for the Ally Cadillac, of course, but man, you see the Corvettes roll through, all these other classes in GT or LMP2, and they’re all really unique and fun cars. It’s a lot of fun seeing these cool cars and the technology and the folks around them.”
It’s also reunited Knaus and Johnson, the driver-crew chief pairing that produced seven Cup Series championships and 83 victories in NASCAR’s premier series from 2002-18.
Knaus, who turns 50 in August, transitioned into a managerial role this year at Hendrick Motorsports (and has been overseeing competition as the team has produced one of its best seasons in recent memory), freeing him from a crew chief’s weekly travel grind. He now has time to pursue many bucket-list items he and Johnson dreamed of doing together, such as the Baja 1000 and 24 Hours of Le Mans.
When the opportunity arose for Johnson to race the 2021 Rolex 24 at Daytona with sponsorship from Ally (which backed his final two seasons in NASCAR), he pitched team owner Rick Hendrick on having Knaus help direct the project.
“What was required of him as a crew chief in the Cup Series just took so much time, and he tried to watch other forms of motorsport from afar and certainly has a love for sports car racing,” Johnson said. “He’s always asked me a lot of questions about the (IMSA) experiences I’ve had. He is really excited to be here, as am I excited to have him.”
“I was like, ‘Yeah, I’d love to be a part of it,’ ” said Knaus, who also has Le Mans and Formula One races on his wishlist. “Now how much can I contribute? Man, it’s really difficult. It’s like bringing in a really good football player to try to help somebody play baseball. They’re a little different. I feel like we as a company at Hendrick Motorsports are providing a resource on pit road that’s valuable. They’ve been practicing diligently and gotten the pit stops faster from where we started in Daytona. So that’s a great thing.
“My involvement in Daytona and Sebring was pretty high. Unfortunately on the Cup side, I’ve been really, really busy recently. So we’re going to discuss what my job description is going to be when we get to Watkins Glen, and I hope that I can contribute. But it’s a lot of fun when you’ve got a driver from France, a driver from Japan, a driver from El Cajon. You’ve got a race engineer that’s Scottish. It’s just a completely different vibe.”
There have been commonalities, though.
“The thing I’ve enjoyed the most about it is a racer from any other continent is still a racer,” Knaus said. “We’re there for one thing, and that’s to extract as much speed out of any race car that we possibly can.
“You talk to some of these guys that are cultured and cured endurance racers. Their mindset is way different than these Cup drivers I’ve dealt with my whole career. And no disrespect to Cup drivers, but they’re not as coddled. They’re very raw. They’re very aggressive. It’s just a different, different mindset, so it’s pretty fun.”
But it sometimes gets tricky interpreting heavily accented radio transmissions that can include snippets of French and Japanese as a race intensifies.
“The English kind of breaks down a little bit, and you’re like, ‘Oh, what did he say? Can you help with that?’ and everybody in the back is saying, “I think he said this!’ ” Knaus said, laughing. “But when you’re face to face with the guys, they all get it. They talk understeer and oversteer, loose and tight, and they talk braking ability and center of pressure. All the things that we do on the Cup side, just in a different term.
“And that gave me a lot of comfort that I’ve got a good understanding of the fundamentals of this product.”
Knaus was comfortable enough to try a new role as the No. 48 strategist at Sebring, which turned out an extremely challenging race weekend.
After a stuck throttle in practice required a pedal assembly swap, Johnson crashed late in qualifying. Rebuilding the car virtually from scratch (IMSA teams don’t have backups prepared as precisely as in Cup), the team worked in the garage past 1 a.m. before returning a few hours later to prepare for a 10 a.m. start.
“It was frightening to me when we went to unload the backup car, and it was a tub,” said Knaus, who pitched in by inserting a new windshield. “Oh my God! What in the world are we going to do now? But man, everyone just rolled up their sleeves and rock and rolled. It was an amazing experience.”
Johnson spun again 15 minutes after the green flag, but the damage was negligible, and the ensuing strategy propelled the No. 48 into the lead.
Yet with just more than three of 12 hours remaining, the team was informed of violating a maximum drive time rule (Pagenaud was behind the wheel for 50 seconds over a limit of four hours during a six-hour stretch).
Knaus took full blame for an error he said was “painful. It was awful. We still had an opportunity to win that race even through all the spinning, crashes and all that stuff. So that was heartbreaking, and I was traumatized for that.
“I went in a little bit naïve thinking I could just do this thing pretty easily and not understanding all the rules at the same time. Obviously, experience pays dividends in anything, and we just didn’t have the fundamentals set correctly. And what hurt us was just the cadence of everything: Spinning, crashing, spinning again. It just knocked the wheels off, and one got by us. I felt terrible. I don’t know that I had left a race feeling as bad in a long, long time.”
Knaus said the team would decide this week if he handle tactics at the Glen. At Sebring, he quickly got acclimated to the rhythm of a 12-hour race (compared to the 708 Cup races he called that would run three to four hours; Sunday’s six-hour event will be in a more familiar window).
“I didn’t think it was that different,” Knaus said of IMSA strategy. “It was fine until I screwed up. Prior to that mistake, it was really enjoyable. You run more off of the time than the laps on the Cup side. So that’s not a difficult transition. You get it pretty quickly with the data that’s provided. You can really make some fun calls.”
Knaus and Hendrick also are getting a sneak peek at the future of NASCAR. The NextGen car that will enter Cup in 2022 shares much with a sports car, including an independent rear suspension, sturdier braking and larger aluminum wheels with a single lug nut that demands a heavier pit gun.
Knaus noted that much of the technology will be new to Hendrick’s crew chiefs while some Cup teams might have an edge in familiarity because of their sister IMSA and IndyCar operations.
“Especially if we do more road courses or street circuits (in NASCAR), getting that information is going to be valuable,” Knaus said. “The guys at Penske, Chip Ganassi Racing and Roush that have their fingers and tentacles in other areas and genres of racing, I feel they’re going to have an advantage over us because they have had the experience. Now how long will that advantage last, or to what degree, has yet to be seen. But the comfort level for a lot of those folks is going to be significantly higher.”
With an IMSA pit crew hand-picked by Knaus, Hendrick has deployed a mix of pit crew athletes and road mechanics to the IMSA effort to hone its NextGen knowledge base and pit stop choreography. Team owner Rick Hendrick, who once dabbled in sports cars, attended Sebring and texted Knaus for updates during the Rolex 24.
But after the Glen, the Action Express-Hendrick No. 48 alliance is slated for one more race (the Nov. 13 season finale at Road Atlanta). Knaus hopes to be at the 24 Hours of Le Mans next year (“Whoever needs somebody to help lug some stuff around, I’m here!”), but it won’t be with his NASCAR team – though he isn’t ruling out Hendrick revisiting sports cars in the future with IMSA’s LMDh class arriving in 2023.
“Mr. Hendrick thought it was awesome,” Knaus said of Sebring. “But Mr. H is really smart, and he understands the foundation of Hendrick Motorsports is the Cup deal. We try to keep our scope pretty narrow, and we’ve managed pretty well in that manner.
“With (NextGen), I don’t know how much extracurricular activity we’ll be able to actually do. Maybe a year after, we can talk about some stuff. Maybe we can do a few more. It’s been a lot of fun.”
Knaus, who said he set “a personal record – sober” for consecutive hours awake at Daytona (“Jimmie and I had some parties where we managed to go from the All-Star Race well into the next day”), especially relishes the direct interaction with Johnson again.
“I haven’t really talked to him much -- he’s been so ingrained in the IndyCar program and the hustle and bustle we have on the Cup side is at an all-time high,” Knaus said. “But man, we get to the racetrack, it’s awesome. I really enjoy seeing the smile on his face. I think he sees I’m enjoying myself. It’s been a lot of fun for the both of us for sure.
“Other people do other things on the weekends. Why can’t I just go to another race? Some guys go on vacation and ride motorcycles. I like cool race cars.”